US universities ‘obliged’ to speak out against gun laws

President of George Washington University also questions the benefit of free university tuition

June 16, 2016
Non-violence sculpture, Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd, United Nations (UN) headquarters, New York City
Source: Alamy
Weapons of mass destruction: there are now more guns than people in the US

US university leaders have an “obligation” to lobby against proposed laws allowing the carrying of concealed weapons on college campuses, the outgoing president of George Washington University has claimed.

In a podcast interview with Times Higher Education, Steven Knapp, who announced earlier this month that he will stand down as president of the institution next year, said that US university presidents have a “responsibility to speak out” against such policies, which impact on “the atmosphere on our campus” and the ability to have “free and open debate”.

His comments come a fortnight after an engineering professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, was fatally shot on campus. It is the latest in a string of recent campus shootings involving school and college students.

From August, a new law will prevent public colleges and universities in Texas from banning the concealed carrying of handguns on campus.

Listen to the podcast interview with President Knapp in full

When asked whether university presidents could do more to prevent gun violence, Dr Knapp said: “If something like that policy were to be proposed in Washington DC, which is where my university is located, or in fact the state of Virginia, where we have not only one of our campuses but a number of our teaching centres…I would certainly be very vocal in raising concerns about that.”

He added: “I don’t usually see my role as wading into partisan debates about these things but I think when it impinges on the university, then I have not only a right but an obligation to speak out and say ‘this is the effect I think this will have on the atmosphere on our campus, on the academic freedom’, which is one of our most important values.”

He continued: “Obviously what we can’t do is prevent someone coming on campus who is armed in a society in which there are more guns than people. That’s a reality we face in the United States…The only other thing we can do is make sure our students are trained, prepared, and adequately supported by the kinds of system we can put in place to protect them.”

In a wide-ranging discussion, Dr Knapp said that the biggest challenge he has faced during his nine years heading the university has been managing the financial model of the institution, at a time when family income has stagnated but university costs have increased. He said that this has resulted in the university doubling the amount of student aid available for lower-income students to about $200 million (£137 million) a year – money that is generated from the tuition revenues from full fee-paying students.

He added that advances in technology have also contributed to increasing costs for universities.

Computerisation has “added value by giving students more ways of gaining access to information and giving them more flexibility in how they can interact with the course material”, but it “hasn’t saved any money”, he said.

“In fact it’s added cost because now we have to pay for all those systems. We have to produce courses that are actually more expensive to manage, not less expensive.”

Although he said that the “high price, high aid” model of US private institutions raises “all kinds of concerns”, he also said that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ pledge to provide free university education could have “unintended consequences”.

“It actually reduces the amount of resources available to support students from lower incomes,” he said.

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